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Thursday, December 18, 2014

John Keeble

At a glance
Out of the Channel
by John Keeble

Eastern Washington University Press
363 pages, $$14
paperback

At 12:04 a.m. on March 23, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

The tanker, which had been bound for Long Beach, Calif., was carrying 53,094,510 gallons of crude oil.

Within the first three hours, more than 5 million gallons of the black gold flowed out of the ship’s ripped hull, beginning a process that would deposit a dark sludge more than 460 miles along the southwest coastline, inundating the shore, coves, beaches and most of the wildlife that lived there.

In all, more than 11 million gallons of oil ended up being spread over 11,000 square miles.

According to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trust Council – a group set up to oversee the $900 million that would come from an eventual civil suit – the spill ended up being one of the worst ecological disasters in history.

“The timing of the spill, the remote and spectacular location, the thousands of miles of rugged and wild shoreline, and the abundance of wildlife in the region combined to make it an environmental disaster well beyond the scope of other spills,” the council said.

Barely two weeks after the incident, John Keeble, the noted novelist and creative writing instructor at Eastern Washington University, arrived in Valdez on assignment for the New York alternative newspaper Village Voice. Over the next six months he talked to a range of people, from scientists to fishermen, average Alaska residents to Exxon corporate officials.

The ultimate result of Keeble’s trip was “Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound,” which was first published by HarperCollins in 1991 and has since been reprinted by the Eastern Washington University Press (363 pages, $14 paper).

Keeble’s book is the November read for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

In an interview shortly after the book’s initial release, Keeble talked about how he came into Valdez, used connections with nature writer Barry Lopez to get some background information, moved on to other communities (Cordova, Port Graham), and how he stumbled through interviews with officials of both Exxon and the government, all in an attempt to get his story.

“I got to the point where I was very comfortable around the fishermen and pretty comfortable around the people in Port Graham, the native people,” he said. “But every time I had to go to talk to Exxon or government people, I was scared. I’d walk in there, fumble around, act stupid.”

However he did it, Keeble collected the information he needed to write what the Whole Earth Review called “a grave and intelligent account” of the disaster.

“His novelist’s eye searches steadily for small bright spots of courage and determination to counterbalance the evasion and environmental devastation,” wrote Rick Bass in the Los Angeles Times.

“Because Keeble confronts Exxon’s deceptions with childlike wonder rather than hardened rancor, we leave this book with the hopeful feeling that a new start might still be possible.”

Childlike wonder. I imagine that’s one way to describe passage such as this one, in which Keeble chartered a plane to fly over over an island that was covered with black sludge:

“I spotted several brown rectangular shapes floating in an inlet and reached for the binoculars. The pilot dropped the plane to the level of the cliffs. The shapes were motionless in the murk. They were otters, eight or nine dead ones, washed into the inlet.”

On an island 40 miles south from the spill site, Keeble noticed that “the normal colors of gray rock, the ocher of dried eel grass, and the green of the shadows were entirely gone. Everywhere, the water was rainbow-black from crude.”

Eventually, he wrote, he “stopped fooling with my binoculars, camera, and notebook, and instead held my head still against the window and stared down at horror.”

Keeble, 60, has had four novels published (“Mine,” “Crab Canon,” “Yellowfish” and “Broken Ground”). He has taught creative writing at Eastern since 1973 and has served, on and off, as the department chair.

He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982, and his writings, fiction and nonfiction, have appeared in a range of publications from Northwest Review to “Best American Short Stories.”

“Out of the Channel” would seem to be a change for him, and it was. But if certainly proves that a writer – a true writer, that is – can bridge genres.

And, to use Bass’ words, Keeble’s novelist’s eye helps him describe an ecological horror – such as the following passage, in which he stands on the deck of a boat and looks on as the process of cleaning, instead of restoring the environment, changes it into something else completely:

“We were in the heart of the long twilight. I could see the rigging lights of small boats, pale in the mist, and the outlines of large boats and barges, the sometimes resplendently illuminated hotel boats. Laughter wafted across the water from the bunches of vessels crammed together like small towns floating just off the ghettoes of the beaches.

“The power of despoilment was making its next visitation. Soon, it would pass on with its rattling head. These places had never heard such engines, or felt such high-pressure spray, such heat, such chemistry, nor been stripped bare, as they sometimes were, of gravel and rock. They had never been walked up on by so many feet, had never been left this way, black with death, white with death.”

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